In our year-end miniseries They Have the Range, Primetimer writers and editors highlight the most versatile TV actors of 2022.
All the people worrying we’ve run out of movie stars need to watch Raymond Lee. He’s certainly a good actor, but as he’s proven on a pair of shows this year, he’s also got the charisma we’re talking about when we yearn for the days of Cary Grant in a tuxedo. Whether he’s jumping through time on Quantum Leap or succumbing to his lustiest instincts on Kevin Can F**k Himself, there’s a glint in his eye that makes him seem like he’s enjoying the ride. It’s enough to make an audience swoon.
To that end, NBC’s Quantum Leap reboot is basically a sizzle reel for the types of stories that Lee can make work. Yes, he plays Dr. Ben Song, a scientist who’s leaping into various lives at various points in time, but that delightfully silly storyline is mostly an excuse to let each installment experiment with a different genre. In the first half of the season, Ben has had an Apollo 13-style space adventure, an Exorcist-adjacent encounter with a possessed kid, and a Wild West shoot-em-up during the California Gold Rush.
Lee adjusts his acting style to suit each story, without losing the central charm that makes his character consistent. You may recognize this as something movie stars do, so that we can still enjoy their essential persona, even when they’re dressed up like firefighters or doctors or noble fighter pilots. Lee hooks us by starting each episode with a variation on Ben’s confusion when he lands inside a new life. Sometimes he’s confused and scared, because there’s someone chasing him with a gun. Sometimes, he’s confused and wary, because someone he’s never seen is saying she wants a divorce. The point is that he always communicates a moment of vulnerability before diving headfirst into whatever adventure awaits him. It’s effective every time, because it gives us permission to submit to an episode’s antics. We’re assured he’s our stand-in, the way Bruce Willis convinced us he was a regular guy who happened to be fighting terrorists in the first Die Hard.
Two episodes are especially good examples of Lee’s movie star gifts. In Episode 4, “A Decent Proposal,” Ben leaps into the body of Eva Sandoval, a female bounty hunter, and Lee makes his performance slightly more feminine without resorting to caricature. His voice is a little softer and his face shows a little more emotion. He also registers shock when a man assumes he can hit on Eva just because she’s a lady. Later, when he cold cocks the dude in a fight scene, Lee doesn’t play it like he’s letting Ben’s macho persona take over: He lets us see that Eva herself is doing her job. Like all women, she’s complex enough to be soft and hard in the same afternoon, and Lee gets it all.
It would be incredibly easy to weigh this episode down, either with grotesque feminine stereotypes or with overly earnest hand-wringing about sexism. Instead, Lee keeps it light and keeps it moving, like he trusts us to sort through the politics after he’s finished entertaining us. He brings the same fleetness to Episode 6, “What a Disaster!”, which finds him in the body of a man named John Harvey during the San Francisco earthquake of 1989. In that episode, Ben runs out of multiple collapsing buildings, has tearful moments with John’s wife and son, and even calls his own mother to apologize for things he did as a kid. And somehow, Lee makes it clear he’s having fun. Like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, it’s never too much for him to defy death or rediscover the power of love. In fact, it’s his job to make it seem like a lark.
Lee’s job on Kevin Can F**k Himself is more straightforward, but no less challenging. He plays Sam Park, a local restaurateur who’s having an affair with Allison (Annie Murphy), his old flame from high school. Allison is the center of this pitiless show, which focuses on her attempts to escape her boorish husband. Even though Sam is dealing with marital problems himself, he still represents an escape for our heroine. That means Lee’s performance must exude everything Allison’s missing at home: thoughtfulness, maturity, and most importantly, sexual attraction.
As much as anything he says or does, Sam’s vibe is what matters, and Lee’s got the vibe. He can look at Murphy in a way that implies he’s kissing her in his mind, and when those sparks fly, we can better accept Allison’s desperate attempts to escape her marriage. If somebody looked at us like that, then we might fight to have him, too. It takes an actor like Lee to generate that kind of heat, and that kind of heat is what makes a movie star.
Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.
TOPICS: Raymond Lee, AMC, NBC, Kevin Can F**k Himself, Quantum Leap (2022 Series), Annie Murphy